We live in an age of miracles, but not of the religious variety. The wonders of the modern age are technological, an ever refined harnessing of material and forces, so that where two hundred years ago the farthest man could see was the horizon, and horseback the fastest news could travel, we can now instantly communicate across the entire planet, while our radio telescopes have witnessed the most distant galaxies. If these are not miracles, then what are?
But where are Heaven and Hell? Classical mythology tells us Hell is below the surface, but geology tells us that is not so, and astronomy has yet to locate Heaven. But without those opposing constructs from which to hang the banner of salvation, where is conventional morality? In a world where religion is big business, the question is, if we didn’t have Hell as punishment would we invent it to keep the coffers full by selling salvation to the fearful population?
Involved civilisations like the Culture, where death is no obstacle for those equipped with a neural lace that can download an entire personality into a new body or simulated environment, have no need for conventional religion. But others do feel the need for that archaic mindset, and have created virtual Hells, where personalities can be made to suffer eternal simulated torment, degradation and pain. But while the Culture can disapprove of this, as it is beyond their borders, there is little they can openly do, unless Special Circumstances arise.
Although not as convoluted as Transition, Surface Detail is not an easy novel to get to grips with. There are no privileged frames of reference, the general theory of relativity tells us, and the same is true in reading Banks. Just because a novel is ostensibly written from the point of view of a character doesn’t mean they will survive the book. Lededje Y’breq, escaped slave on the run and our apparent host, is murdered by her master Veppers at the end of the first chapter. Our next candidate is Vatueil, demoted war veteran struggling in a hopeless new campaign, who at the end of the second chapter is executed. So when the third chapter opens with Quietus agent Yime Nsokyi defending her Hub from an overwhelming assault, you don’t hold out much hope for her chances, but it wouldn’t be Banks without a few big explosions in space.
To her surprise, Lededje is reborn in a new body via a neural lace implanted years before without her knowledge by the Culture ship Me, I’m Counting. But, realising her new body is not marked as Intagliated, so even if her killer knew she was alive he would not recognise her, a second chance of life is not what she has in mind. And what of Vatueil? He carries on fighting, death or no death, for he is a virtual soldier, fighting a simulated war via avatar, and any time he dies, he just downloads to a new campaign and starts all over again.
The surface details of the title are not only Lededje’s tattoos, but the promises the different civilisations make to each other, only to betray their partners as soon as a better deal comes along.
Lededje, out for revenge, and Yime, sent to stop her as killing Veppers may destabilise the system, are the only ones whose goals are honest, but only in terms of the information given them by the Minds, and their motivations were never something conceivable in human terms. In fact, much as Lededje observes on her opening bid from freedom, hanging from painted theatre scenery, unable to discern the landscape, detail only has meaning if the observer has perspective on the bigger picture.
It is a quirk of Banks’ work that he often chooses to make the characters that form the emotional core of his novels explicitly non-human, such as the Chel of Look to Windward, and here, the Pavul, whose suffering in the virtual Hell is the story that defines the novel, underpinning the grander conflict in the outer world as the Culture move against those running the Hells. By making the most human characters the most inhuman species, does Banks wish to make us feel for all who are different, focus on their hearts and minds rather than their pelts and trunks, or does he just delight in perverse discontinuities?
The novel is not without flaws. Banks is notorious for his diversions and, while sometimes these can be mesmerising and moving, in a story already as convoluted and top heavy with primary and secondary characters as Surface Detail, a more direct approach may have been more rewarding. Perhaps the briefly visited Fallen Bulbitians are to be followed up in the next novel in the Culture sequence, or are simply a tease of greater answers just out of reach. You never can tell what or who might pop up in the most unexpected places…
An incidental moment is in fact one of the most telling of the novel – the fact that the Culture is revealed to have a backup plan in the case of a catastrophic event. The fact that the Culture regards itself as impermanent, ephemeral even, is a chilling thought, perhaps a holdover from their encounter with the Outside Context Problem of Excession? To quote that novel – “Most cultures encounter an OCP in the same way a sentence encounters a full stop.”
Banks has accelerated his writing schedule, and while this novel does not feel stylistically rushed or incomplete, there are several unfortunate typos in the first edition which may hopefully be corrected for paperback. While an automated spellchecker would tremble at the character names Banks habitually uses, errors such as omitted or duplicated punctuation should have been spotted in proofs. A minor quibble, but the sudden feeling of mentally running aground on a simple mistake lodged in the text does tend to eject one from the flow of a scene.
Still, at least he appears to have won the argument with his editor over his beloved semicolons; there are three in the first full paragraph alone, and another Banks trademark is present and correct. He does not write cowed women: Lededje may be shamed, a chattel, even formerly dead, but that will not stop her being exactly who she wants to be, and the same can be said for Chay, the Pavulean locked in Hell, who continues to fight the devil for all eternity in her refusal to be defined by her captivity.
Not only does Banks write strong, indomitable women, there is another voice he would write very well, although he has no inclination to do so. At the Edinburgh signing event for Surface Detail he was asked if, like so many other British science fiction writers, he would care to work on Doctor Who. “I was talking to Paul Cornell about that. We talked about the limitations. At the end of the episode, the monster has to go back in the box. That would cramp my style.” Reading the dialogue of Demiesen, avatar of the Culture vessel Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, technical, fast, sarcastic, dismissive, tender and flirty, I wished that he might reconsider his position regarding a certain Time Lord.
Follow the links for our interview with Iain, his appearance at the Edinburgh Science Festival, our conversation with Iain, Ken Macleod, Charlie Stross and Andrew J Wilson, and our review of his novel Transition